Picture perfect Brielle: the origin of Dutch April Fools’ Day

Brielle is best known for having been the first town to be freed, by Dutch Watergeuzen (Sea Beggars), from the Spanish occupation during the Dutch revolt or Eighty Years’ War. It occurred on April 1, 1572, by happenstance, and it evolved into the Netherland’s own version of April Fools’ Day.

Brielle, formerly known as Den Briel, is a small historic seaport and fortified town located on the island of Voorne-Putten at the mouth of the Maas river in the province of South Holland. The town has almost 400 monuments concentrated in a small area, and it has one of the best-preserved fortresses in the Netherlands.

The birth of Brielle

Throughout the 11th and 12th centuries, farmers quarried peat found on parts of the Voorne island as fertilizer for farming. As the farmers kept building up the soil over the centuries with peat, it eventually became an island prompting the birth of Brielle. This is how the Dutch made Holland, one small mound of peat and potting soil at a time.

During the 14th century, the hamlet of Brielle developed and grew into a significant trading centre. It had all the elements of a suburb: monasteries, churches, inns, shipyards, warehouses, guilds, militia, law enforcement, politicians, and rich merchants. In 1330 Brielle acquired city rights and, with its privileges, made the town even wealthier.

Image: Jim Goyjer Photography/Supplied

Herring riches

By 1370 fishing and trading ships from Brielle sailed to England, Germany, Scandinavia, Russia, Spain, North Africa and the Middle East. Brielle developed into Holland’s largest interregional herring market. The herring trade was so significant that Brielle’s herring casks became standard use for exporting herring throughout the rest of Holland.

With the herring industry, salt trade became important. No salt, no haring maatjes. In addition, there was trade of the usual crops and products, such as barley, hides and wool. Wooden lighthouses were built near Brielle to keep ships from being shipwrecked. Piloting ships was also lucrative for Brielle.

The Watergeuzen barged in

The Watergeuzen were a rag-tag group of nasty Dutch privateers, led by Willem van der Marck or “Lumey,” for short. Many Geuzen were noblemen and ultra-Calvinists, like Lumey, who were considered outlaws by the Spanish. Lumey, affectionately called the “papal hater,” and his fleet of the two dozen ships were hiding out near Dover, England, having been defeated by the Spanish in a sea battle.

Spain’s Catholic King Philip II pressured England’s Protestant Queen Elizabeth I to expel the flotilla of marauders. Known as the Virgin Queen, because she never married, Elizabeth ousted them and regretted the decision 13 years later when the Spanish Armada was on its way to invade England to overthrow her Protestant establishment and ban virginity.

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Lumey looked for another place to hide. His fleet set sail toward the Dutch island of Texel when a violent storm forced it to sail into the Maas river estuary and anchor off Brielle. Lumey had hoped to be greeted with open arms, they were instead greeted by closed city gates.

April Fools’ Day mayhem

Once anchored, a local ferryman told the crew that the Spanish soldiers left for unrest in Utrecht. Lumey and his men went to the town’s Noordpoort (North Gate) and shouted, “In the name of Prince of Orange, open this darn gate!” The actual shout was a little raunchier and unprintable.

Since the city council didn’t respond to the bellowed request to surrender, the Geuzen tried to set the gate on fire with some dead branches, straw and a few matches. When that didn’t work, they rammed the Noordpoort with a ship’s mast. Brielle was liberated by lunch.

Majestic Sint-Catharijnekerk (Saint Catherine’s Church). Image: Jim Goyjer Photography/Supplied

Brielle was built around several monasteries and Roman Catholic churches. So, while the Noordpoort was being rammed open by the Protestants, the Catholic city council, wealthy and clergy panicked and left town through the Zuidpoort (South Gate). Smart move.

The Geuzen sacked and plundered anything that looked Catholic in the defenceless port. They destroyed statues in the Sint-Catharijnekerk (Saint Catherine’s Church) and looted the church treasures. “Looney” Lumey wanted to set the church on fire but was stopped since they ran out of matches. They were all used up at the city gate and burning the Spanish ships.

Because the liberation occurred on April 1, 1572, the Dutch marked it as their April Fools’ day. Consequently the Dutch rhyme: “Op 1 april / Verloor Alva zijn Bril.” This translates to: “On April 1st / Alva lost his glasses”. “Bril” means glasses in Dutch. It is claimed that the tradition of pranks on April 1st in the Netherlands arose to celebrate the victory in Brielle and the humiliation of the Spanish.

The Martyrs of Gorcum pilgrims

After their victory in Brielle, the Geuzen seized the nearby town of Gorcum. There they captured a group of 19 Catholic priests and friars. The captors were dragged to Brielle where they were interrogated and given a choice to remain Catholic or become Protestants. None switched and all of them were hung.

The news of their torture and death spread around the Catholic world and soon after people attributed miracles to them, especially after drinking too much holy wine. In 1867, the Martyrs of Gorcum became canonized by the Pope. This blessing was also a blessing for Brielle.

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As a result of the canonization, Brielle turned into a national place of pilgrimage. Throughout the year lots of Catholics go to honour the Martyrs of Gorcum. The pilgrimages became a good source of income for the Protestants.

Brielle Gets A Makeover

After the lynching, the Beggars started replacing the medieval city walls with a modern fortress. They added reinforced ramparts and bastions, since the old ones could not hold the arrival of heavier artillery. Although the town also obtained a new really big, beautiful harbour, by medieval standards, access to its port became increasingly difficult due to silt.

Not much blood has spilt in and around the fortified city, after the renovation was completed in 1713. Even in 1813, when a brief battle took place while the French were leaving the Netherlands after three years of occupation, little blood was lost. So, all the fortifications stayed intact for future tourists to enjoy.

Jews Commune With Gentiles

Until 1756 Jews were not allowed to reside in Brielle. That year, some wealthy Jews asked the mayor to be allowed to settle there. After some factfinding how this worked in the Hague and Rotterdam and some more discussions with the applicants, who reminded the Christian mayor that Jesus was a Jew, they were accepted on the eve of St. Nicholas Day, December 5th. Mazzel Tov!

The Jews were given the freedom to exercise their faith, civil rights, and, like other residents, shop freely in all the stores. They were also permitted to own businesses and join the largest guild. But they could not be part of the militia or be armed. Instead they had to pay six guilders each year for the support of the military. That was fine with the conscientious objectors.

Image: Jim Goyjer Photography/Supplied

In 1817 the Jewish community purchased a house next to the Roman Catholic Church. It was renovated into a schoolroom and a living space for the Rabbi and cantor. A synagogue was built behind the house and dedicated in March 1818. By 1871 Brielle had about 120 Jewish inhabitants.

Silting of the Brielse Maas river made the town more inaccessible by ship. Brielle’s economy declined during the second half of the nineteenth century and, with it, the town’s Jewish population and activities. By 1899, the Jewish community was without a cantor or a Rabbi. Soon after, religious services ceased and all that remained was helping the poor with food.

WWII, the German and Dutch Nazis

On May 10, 1940 Germany invaded the Netherlands. Brielle was in a state of uncertainty. In August, the Germans arrived in Brielle. Life was upended and Nazified. Products became scarce. Everyone had to carry an identity card. Jews were required to wear a yellow Star of David patch. In August 1942, the civilian mayor was replaced by a Nazi mayor, a member of the NSB (Dutch Nazi Party).

The few Jewish families who lived in Brielle were targets of the NSB’ers and the Germans. The new mayor ordered the Jews to close their shops and were gradually deported during the fall of 1942. Then, 23 family members were forced into concentration camps. None returned.

The synagogue was looted. Only the Torah scrolls were saved and eventually brought to Rotterdam. The beautiful arched windows were bricked up and the round window with the Star of David disappeared. In 1947 the building was sold and turned into a warehouse.

The Russian Tatars tarried here

At the outbreak of WWII, Russian dictator Stalin sent Volga Tatar soldiers to the front first to fight the Germans. They were an oppressed group and expendable since they were Muslims and looked like Mongols. The Volga Tatars are a large ethnic group native to the Volga-Ural region of Russia, about 1000 km (600 miles) east of Moscow.

On the eastern front the Volga Tatars saw the supremacy of the Germans and did not want to serve as cannon fodder for Stalin. They defected en masse and joined the German army, not realizing that the Nazis were also racists.

About 850 Volga Tatars, serving in a German infantry battalion, led by Inselkommandant (Island Commander) Ernst Eugen Schermuly, were sent to defend Voorne island in 1943. Ernst was not popular with the public because of his brutality and reign of terror. On a September day in 1944, Ernst arrested several Dutch resisters and executed them in public view on the town square.

Goodbye Nazis and Tatars

After D-Day on June 6, 1944, the Tatar battalion was moved to another front to try and stem the invasion by the Allies. On May 4, 1945, the Germans surrendered and the Volga Tatars were returned to the Soviet Union. Now that they were considered Russian traitors, they awaited a bullet or a gulag in Siberia. One Tatar escaped on the way back to Russia and spent the rest of his life in England.

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On May 13, Schermuly was arrested along with some other NSB members. A local tribunal of lawyers held a trial of the war criminals. Ernst was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He served part of his prison sentence in the Dome, a prison in Breda. The Dome is best known for incarcerating convicted World War II Dutch collaborators. Today, it is used for peaceful events. 

Meant to be a cathedral

The most prominent structure in Brielle is Sint-Catharijnekerk. The first stone was placed in 1417 and the last in 1482. It was originally a Roman Catholic church until the Watergeuzen arrived when it became a Protestant church.

A fire almost destroyed the church in 1456. The townsfolk started rebuilding in 1462 and envisioned the church to become the largest cathedral in Holland. Twenty years later the money ran out. The tower was intended to be 120 meters, but the town had to settle on a height of 60 meters (318 steps). Still, a climb up the tower gives you a spectacular view of Brielle.

In the summer of 1943, Sint-Catharijnekerk’s church bells were taken from the tower and transported on the ship “Op Hoop” to Germany. The bells were destined to be melted down for military equipment. The ship sunk on the IJsselmeer near the town of Urk. It was never clear whether it was an accident or an act of sabotage. After the war, the ship was raised and the carillon was returned to Brielle.

A synagogue resurrected

Sjoel Brielle is a cultural-historical monument in the old city centre. It is the former synagogue that was in use for over 70 years by the Jewish community until WWII. It is the only surviving Jewish place of worship in the region of Zuid (South) Holland province.

In 1999, led by a local Protestant minister, the building was purchased and restored to the former synagogue, with the support of the locals. In 2004 Jewish and Palestinian youths came from Israel to help break open the bricked-up windows when, after a long time, light returned to the old building.

On September 11, 2005, the synagogue was officially inaugurated. Friends of the Tromp Museum, now the Brielle Historical Museum, donated the proceeds from the book “Matsewa, A history of Jewish cemeteries at Voorne-Putten; Geervliet and Zuidland.” The first donation went for a new round window with a Star of David in the facade.

See Brielle with or without glasses

After several centuries of restorations, Brielle is now one of the most beautiful and complete fortified cities in the Netherlands. The restorations have included Sint-Catharijnekerk, the Tromp Museum, the town hall, the ramparts, the Langepoort (Long Gate), the Kaaipoort (Quay Gate), and the Asyl (Asylum) for Old and Deficient Sailors. The restorations have paid off handsomely.

The Historic Museum Den Briel, in the former 18th century City Hall, is a small but jampacked museum that gives you an insight in the town’s history, particularly of its role in the Eighty Years’ War and the invasion of the Watergeuzen.

Image: Jim Goyjer Photography/Supplied

In the 1950s the Brielse Maas river was dammed and the connection to the open sea was lost. Now called the Brielse Meer (lake), it is a popular recreation area for water sports, hiking, cycling, sunbathing, camping, boating and enjoying nature. It also has several restaurants lining the shore.

In 1975, Brielle’s city centre received the status of Protected Cityscape. In the 1980s Brielle’s April Fools’ Day celebration became a big draw for visitors. In 15th century costumes, the town’s people reenact the battle that freed Brielle from the Spanish. It’s an event not to be missed.

There is much to see in Brielle that reminds you of the Watergeuzen and their exploits. The local heroes of April 1, 1572, have been carved as statues standing in parks throughout the city. One park even has a statue of “lady liberty” remembering, guess what? April Fools’ Day, 1572.

So, come on down for a visit and don’t forget your bril.

Have you visited the historic town of Brielle? Did you know this fascinating history? Tell us your experience in the comments below!

Feature Image: Jim Goyjer Photography/Supplied

Jim Goyjer
Jim Goyjer
Jim Goyjer is a public relations consultant. Born in Amsterdam, he’s lived in California for most of his life. Currently living in the Netherlands with his wife, he looks forward to writing, photography, traveling throughout Europe and exploring more of the Netherlands and his Dutch family heritage going back to the 16th century in Noord Holland and in Amsterdam. He’s always been fascinated with how such a small country as the Netherlands has had such a large impact on the rest of the world.


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